Kerry Patterson is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.
Dear Crucial Skills,
My brother’s wife died suddenly and unexpectedly almost three years ago, twenty-one days before their thirtieth wedding anniversary. She was only fifty-two years old. Since that time, my brother has withdrawn deeply into himself and lives in the emotional pain of her death and his loss. He goes to work every day, but is a shell of his former self. He saw a grief counselor for several months after her death, but now speaks to no one about his lingering pain. What can I do to broach the subject with him, to let him know that I care for him and love him, and that talking about this matter may help?
I’m so sorry to hear of your family’s loss and of your brother’s continued sorrow. How he must have loved his wife to grieve her passing so passionately. I also understand why you’re concerned about his lingering pain and apparent unwillingness to talk about it. He’s lucky to have such a sensitive and caring sibling.
You’re right to give the topic some thought. Getting others to talk about serious topics—when you’re the one who wants them to open up—always presents a problem. The other person could easily interpret your actions as meddling and become resentful. Or, they might simply feel you’re well intended but wish you’d leave them alone. Either way, the conversation can quickly head south and never recover.
So let’s start with a diagnosis. Why do people choose to clam up when speaking up would solve so many problems? In this case, the undiscussed subject is the loss of a loved one, but it could be about anything.
For instance, after I give a presentation on the topic of Crucial Conversations, people often approach me and ask: “How can I get my life partner to talk to me? I understand how the skills you shared might work once a conversation starts flowing, but my partner never wants to talk about anything.”
Let me address the broader issue of talking face-to-face about meaningful topics in general, and then I’ll return to your specific question.
Here’s my generic diagnosis of why people won’t hold certain conversations. They don’t think it will bring them much benefit. In fact, they fear the costs will exceed the benefits. So, it is better to clam up and live with the current problems than to open up and maybe unlock Pandora’s Box. It’s a simple enough theory. People seek pleasure and avoid pain, and they figure talking will probably bring them pain.
I’m reminded of a civic leader who approached me a couple years back about an upcoming community meeting. He was upset at the previous attendance levels and wanted to know what he could do to get people to show up at the important event. At first, the fellow wanted to use his position of power to threaten folks. Next he wanted to frighten them with horror stories about the impending doom they would surely suffer if they continued to remain apathetic about the meeting.
So I asked him: “Have you thought about the meeting itself?” I had been to a couple and then, like most of my neighbors, stopped going because the meetings were slow-paced, boring, and appeared irrelevant.
“What are you getting at?” the leader asked.
“Perhaps people would be more likely to go if they got more out of the meetings. Maybe if they enjoyed the experience, they’d be willing to give you more of their precious time.”
After a brief discussion, the leader left with a resolve to make the meetings something people wanted to attend.
So now, when people approach me about a spouse or partner who doesn’t like to do much more than grunt and point, I ask: “What, exactly, do you want to talk about?”
“Well, you know, important stuff,” they explain.
“What kind of important stuff?”
“Problems we need to solve.”
After I prod them further, it usually becomes clear that they want to talk to their partner about what he or she is currently doing wrong and why he or she needs to change. As I’d listen to their description of what their partner is doing wrong, I couldn’t blame them for wanting to talk about and resolve the issues. However, I could also understand why the partner was doing everything he or she could to avoid the discussion.
“So, you’ve tried to talk about the issue, but the conversation failed, and now you’re to the point where you don’t talk much at all.”
“That about sums it up.”
After hearing dozens of similar descriptions, I’ve begun to wonder if a less direct approach might be the better solution to getting people to open up. Prior to this insight, my usual suggestions advised people to talk with the silent party about his or her pattern of avoidance—clearly, openly, and directly. I’d suggest starting the conversation by making it safe. I’d have them explain that they’d like to talk about a problem they see—and resolve it in a way that meets both of their needs. I’d warn people about entering the conversation with the assumption that they were right and others were wrong. I’d encourage them to be curious, not judgmental, to describe the issue (facts not conclusions), and to ask the other person if he or she experienced the problem in the same way. I’d then advise people to let the other person talk.
Previously, I believed that if you followed these skills, you would start the conversation on the right foot. While this advice still holds true, I now think that with long-standing silence and a history of broaching a lot of problems, it is best to first set a goal of having enjoyable, non-threatening conversations—about anything—before bringing up headier issues.
Find a way to regularly talk about things the other person cares about. Next, move to serious but non-confrontational topics. Get to the point where you routinely hold pleasant conversations. Once you’re talking regularly, you can broach more testy subjects by following the steps I just suggested. But first, make conversations safe by not restricting every single interaction to a serious problem-solving discussion.
Now, with regards to your grieving brother, obviously you haven’t been continually trying to get him to open up nor are you constantly talking about problems with him. But the idea of making the conversation safe and pleasant for him certainly applies here. Perhaps your brother fears bringing up the issue will only aggravate the problem. And maybe this has been his experience.
So find time to talk with your brother in general (preferably face to face if he lives nearby, but at least by phone). Be his friend and confidant. Increase the time you spend together. Let the transition from pleasant, smalltalk to more serious topics happen naturally. With time, you might want to start talking about your sister-in-law. Share a pleasant memory or two. Read your brother’s cues. Don’t push the topic if he becomes too uncomfortable. Demonstrate that you can share lovely memories without it turning painful.
Eventually you may want to follow the more direct steps I outlined above. But start by simply being there for your brother and modeling a healthy approach to discussing your sister-in-law’s memory. This alone may help him get to the point where he can talk.